The Christian Institute

News Release

Online Safety Bill “risks most draconian censorship of ideas on the internet in the Western world”

  • MPs will debate the Bill for the first time on Tuesday 19th
  • Christian group calls for changes to stop Government and Big Tech censoring online debate

The Christian Institute is warning MPs that the Online Safety Bill will need radical amendments to prevent it from trampling on free speech. In a briefing sent to MPs in advance of the Bill’s Second Reading on Tuesday, it welcomes action against illegal content and protections for children, but says restricting adult access to so-called ‘legal but harmful’ content is wide open to misuse.

Simon Calvert, a Deputy Director at The Christian Institute, said:

“The Online Safety Bill fixes important problems, but puts free speech in jeopardy. Yes, Big Tech companies must take more responsibility for the content on their platforms. But the Government’s approach is incredibly dangerous. It will hand weapons to Government ministers to silence views they disagree with and apply strong commercial pressure to Big Tech executives to do the same. It risks the most draconian censorship of ideas on the internet in the Western world. The Bill needs much stronger protections for free speech, with fewer powers handed over to the Secretary of State and Ofcom.

“Freedom of speech is under attack today. Many activists take the view that ‘you can say anything we like’! The only opinions they want in the public square are their own. Although well-intentioned, this Online Safety Bill will hand weapons to these thin-skinned activists to silence their opponents.

“The Bill imposes massive fines of up to 10% of global revenue on tech companies that fail to tackle ‘legal but harmful’ content. The Bill gives a circular definition of harm (Clause 187 says it means ‘physical or psychological harm’). The real detail will be filled in by secondary legislation. These powers handed to Government ministers to decide what you can and cannot say on the internet are outrageous and undemocratic. Ministers will be able to change the law with minimal parliamentary scrutiny, creating the risk of politically-motivated bans on what you can say on the internet.

“This vague notion of restricting content deemed ‘legal but harmful to adults’ will encourage Big Tech’s worst instincts. Most of Silicon Valley shares a very clear social and political agenda. They already promote ideas they like and downgrade those they don’t. This Bill will make that even worse. It actually incentivises activists to complain to social media companies about opinions they don’t like. The ‘risk assessment’ duties in the Bill mean tech companies will have to be seen to respond to these complaints, even if they are bogus and politically-motivated. And the Bill makes clear that their terms and conditions can be as restrictive as they like, as long as they’re applied consistently.

“Mainstream Christian beliefs are already being cynically attacked as ‘harmful’ by activists intent on silencing them. The Government should be standing up to these bullies, not giving them a stick to beat us with.”

“Free speech in the UK should not be decided by Silicon Valley executives. And Government ministers should not be able to bring in laws censoring speech without Parliament having the opportunity to amend them.”

Notes for Editors:

The Christian Institute’s Second Reading briefing for MPs can be downloaded at:


Sweeping powers given to the Secretary of State

The concept of ‘legal but harmful’ to adults gives extraordinary power to the Secretary of State to decide which opinions are acceptable online. Regardless of what Nadine Dorries decides to include in this category, any subsequent Secretary of State will be able to change it with only minimal scrutiny. This creates a ready-made tool for state censorship in the future, and there will be constant pressure from activists for restrictions on free speech. (See section 4 of full briefing)

Penumbra effect: tech companies will go well beyond what’s required

Silicon Valley billionaires have already shown themselves very willing to take down views they personally disagree with. Ministers have identified an existing problem with arbitrary take-down decisions. But in this respect the Bill is a hindrance, not a help. It will put companies’ repressive tendencies on steroids. They will steer well clear of the very heavy fines that could be imposed and censor far more than they need to. Their terms and conditions will be able to be as restrictive as they like, as long as they’re applied consistently. (See section 5)

Weak free speech protections

The Government has made great claims about the Bill’s protections for free speech but the reality doesn’t live up to the hype. The free speech duties are weak compared to the pro-censorship pressure that companies will be under. And they already need no external pressure to censor views they don’t agree with. The free speech duty must be drastically strengthened to create a presumption of free speech. (See section 6)

Too much power to Ofcom

The Bill turns Ofcom into the most powerful internet regulator in the West. The Government sees this as a good thing. Ofcom’s codes and guidance will determine how providers implement the duties, and it can impose fines of up to ten per cent of qualifying worldwide revenue for breaches. The track record of Ofcom and its predecessors shows that free speech will be the loser. (See section 7)

Tougher rules online than offline

What is legal to say in the street must not be restricted online. Of course, the Bill must ensure that the criminal law applies on the internet. It must require internet companies to prevent illegal content appearing on their platforms. But the Bill goes beyond the criminal law by regulating what is legal yet deemed harmful. There will be less freedom of speech online than offline. (See section 8)


A ‘harmful communications’ offence (Clause 150) covering messages that risk causing serious distress could be a threat to free speech. Some in our culture easily take offence and claim to be harmed by opinions they disagree with. (See section 3.1)


The Bill includes some welcome proposals:

  • Duties on internet giants to take proactive steps to prevent access to illegal content via their platforms, and also duties to protect children. (See sections 1.1.1 and 1.1.2)
  • In particular, the stand-alone duty on age verification for pornography is long overdue. (See section 2)
  • Duties to allow users to verify their accounts and filter out non-verified user content will be important steps in tackling the scourge of anonymous online abuse. (See section 1.3)
  • We also support the new cyberflashing offence.